See No Evil:
Denial and Animal Suffering (Part 1)

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See No Evil:
Denial and Animal Suffering

By Carol Glaser, Humane Research Council (HRC)
September 2011



This denial can be literal, interpretive, or “implicitory.” Literal denial is when someone actually does not know about something (either because they don’t know, they block it out, or they choose to forget). Interpretive denial is when someone does not interpret something as problematic or immoral. Implicitory denial is when the implications resulting from the behavior or the issue are either ignored or interpreted as unproblematic or nonexistent.

We live in a culture where it is completely normal to do things to billions of animals that we would consider unthinkable to do to humans or the cats and dogs in our homes. Atrocities that pass unquestioned by most people include, among many others, killing homeless animals at rates of thousands per day, confining animals in unsanitary, cramped, and otherwise torturous environments and then killing them in a manner that is often slow and painful, keeping wild animals confined in cages/aquariums and then forcing them to perform tricks or run races.

Those of us that oppose these practices are often considered abnormal, overemotional, or hypersensitive. Why this might be the case is perplexing given that we live in a society that claims not to be repressive or violent. In a previous post I highlighted a study by Deidre Wicks that discussed the silence surrounding what she calls “normalized” animal abuse. This study explains our cultural normalization of animal abuse as a type of denial and so I decided to investigate the concept of denial in more depth.

What is denial?

In his book, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen explores how human atrocities such as genocides, war crimes, or even public beatings can take place without anyone intervening. He begins the book with a crash-course on denial, key concepts from which I will highlight and summarize. Though Cohen does not address the animal question directly, I think many of his concepts can help us better understand the mass social denial of animal suffering.

According to Cohen, denial has a number of components to it, involving cognition, emotion, morality and action. People, therefore, deny animal suffering when they choose not to acknowledge or understand it (cognition), are not bothered or disturbed by it (emotion), do not find it to be wrong or an issue that they should be concerned with (morality), and/or don’t react to the knowledge of animal suffering by taking steps to combat it (action), such as becoming vegetarian or vegan, rescuing an animal, or donating money to animal charities.

How do we deny?

According to Cohen, this denial can be literal, interpretive, or “implicitory.” Literal denial is when someone actually does not know about something (either because they don’t know, they block it out, or they choose to forget). Interpretive denial is when someone does not interpret something as problematic or immoral. Implicitory denial is when the implications resulting from the behavior or the issue are either ignored or interpreted as unproblematic or nonexistent.

The animal protection movement is battling all three of these types of denial. For example, vegan outreach, anti-puppy mill, or anti-fur efforts typically assume that people suffer a literal denial—they simply do not know what is happening to farmed animals and they must be educated. Other times animal advocates deal with interpretive denial, in which people redefine what is going on: “Lobsters/fish/etc. don’t feel pain,” “Animals enjoy performing in circuses.”

Finally there is implicatory denial, in which the facts of the situation are not denied, but the implications of these acts being of moral concern are denied. Cohen also describes this type of denial as rationalizing or justifying. Some other familiar phrases for the animal advocate indicate implicatory denial: “why do you waste your time on animals when there are starving people in Africa,” “this is natural, people are at the top of the food chain,” or simply, “I don’t care.”

Who is denying?

Denial can be also personal, official, or cultural, all of which are self-explanatory. When thinking of these in the context of animal suffering, it seems that these types of denial often work together. Wicks’ discussion of the “Rules of Denial” might be understood as the collusion of cultural and personal denial. In her discussion of the Rules of Denial, Wicks notes that through childhood socialization we learn to “see” some things and ignore others. These lessons are maintained and reinforced through cultural taboos and rules surrounding tact.

A few examples from the animal protection movement immediately come to mind that seem to anecdotally support Wicks’ assertions. Fur is one of the least accepted animal abuse practices, with 65% of U.S. adults saying that wearing fur is “morally acceptable.” However, almost all US citizens support eating animals—only 3% of U.S. adults are vegetarian/vegan. Unlike wearing fur, eating meat is actively normalized at an early age and language and cooking practices make eating the flesh of dead animals seem less gruesome; cows become hamburger patties, pigs become bacon, etc. Fur, on the other hand, is not something that children in the U.S. are often exposed to or taught to accept; it is also called exactly what it is. It seems the animal abuse practices most embedded in childhood socialization and with the greatest amount of cultural “cover-up” seem to be the most widely accepted.

Official denial in terms of animal abuse can also bee seen through the policies in place to support animal abuse, as well as the lack of policies to prevent animal abuse. The amount the U.S. spends on agricultural subsidies is high and directly enables the factory farming of animals. Further, there are relatively few laws to prevent animal abuse. For example, while most states have general anti-cruelty laws, only four U.S. states have felony-level laws that make it a crime to neglect or abandon companion animals, the animals most closely integrated into our lives and communities.

The animal protection movement is concerned with combating all of these types of denial—personal, official, and cultural. Animal advocates work to change denial on a personal level by bringing awareness to individuals and convincing them of the importance of including other animals within their moral circle. Advocates also work to change official denial, asking local and federal governments to be more compassionate by funding programs to alleviate companion animal overpopulation, protect more land for wildlife, pass laws to regulate and limit testing on animals, or ban practices like live animal circuses.

In seeking to change personal and official denial, we also seek to change cultural denial. An overarching goal for animal advocates is to overcome cultural denial by normalizing animal compassion rather than animal abuse. This may be accomplished through a variety of tactics including celebrating and promoting compassionate people and lifestyles, changing our language to reflect respect for other animals (e.g. he or she not “it,” and “companion animals” instead of “pets”).

Coming up next…

Now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that “denial” is a concept at play in the rampant and accepted abuse of animals in our society, I would like to investigate it in more depth in future blog posts. Cohen discusses a concept called the “atrocity triangle.” When atrocities occur, there are not only victims, but also one or more perpetrators (be it an individual, multiple people, a corporation, or a government) as well as bystanders who did not intervene, or even actively accepted the atrocity (i.e. meat eating, going to dog races, wearing fur, etc.).

In the following posts I will discuss perpetrator and bystander denial. What is the mindset (beyond simple financial need) that allows people to take jobs that involve animal abuse, such as working in factory farms or slaughterhouses? Why do so many average people deny the animal suffering around them? And when they learn about it, why do they do nothing to help stop it?

Outside of directly helping individual animals in need, the goal of animal advocacy is to overcome this “bystander denial.” Advocates use a number of tactics—shock advocacy, inducing guilt, and humane education, among others—to combat denial. In my final post of this series I will discuss what research can tell us about the effectiveness of these tactics for getting people to wake up and actually see the animal abuse that is rampant in our society.


In PART 1 I discussed how it is that some people can personally commit acts of cruelty and torture toward animals for a living. However, I think the bigger question is, why are most U.S. citizens willing to pay others to engage in this cruelty, even when it is obvious that they can make personal choices that would prevent it? Unnecessary cruelty and killing of animals occurs every day on a mass scale, and the majority of U.S. citizen choose to accept, enable, and even demand it.

There are too many examples of how individual decisions drive huge animal atrocities. For example, in 2008 over four million cats and dogs were killed in animal shelters due to a lack of homes. In the same year, over one-third of companion animals in U.S. homes were purchased from stores or breeders rather than being adopted. Even though the National Cancer Institute notes that heavy meat consumption increases the risk of dying from all diseases, in 2008 over 9.5 billion land animals were slaughtered for food, consumption of meat, eggs and dairy was at 920 pounds per person, and 97% of the U.S. population were meat-eaters. Clearly, most people are in denial, but why? And how does this denial work?

Normalizing Denial

In the initial post in this series I summarized the work of Stanley Cohen in States of Denial. He identified three types of denial—literal, interpretive, and implicitory. Literal denial is easy for animal advocates to address. We educate people about puppy mills and fur farms, animal slaughter and circus cruelty, and they can no longer deny what is happening. But the problem is that they do. Once literal denial is overcome and people can no longer say, “I didn’t know that animals were suffering,” most people somehow keep living lives that allow for mass animal suffering.

To justify ignoring the knowledge they hold about animal suffering, many people either redefine the atrocities against animals, or they deny that they are morally important. Every year I see people walk past circus picket lines after becoming visibly upset while reading pamphlets. I have seen people read pamphlets on puppy mills but still walk into a per store prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for a companion animal and support the breeding industry.

The difficulty in trying to understand this denial is that these are not pathological or mentally dysfunctional people. They are normal, average, typical people. Cohen’s book does not actually address animal suffering, rather it covers a multitude of human-focused atrocities that played out in the same way. The Armenian Holocaust, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda are all examples of atrocities that occurred while the majority of those with the ability to stop it colluded either by passively accepting it or actively supporting it. Given the prevalence for denial of atrocities, the very tendency for denial seems in itself to be normal, as it happens across social, historical, and cultural settings.

In the case of animals, a number of psychologists have tried to understand how the average person comes to accept and deny suffering. These researchers explain a cultural environment that engenders a denial of animal suffering even when faced with evidence to the contrary. Deidre Wick’s study about the silence and denial of animal suffering, which I have discussed throughout this series, highlights the way in which animal suffering becomes normalized, routinized, and covered up through the process of childhood socialization. We learn at a young age to accept animal suffering and to engage in daily acts of denial, such as using euphemisms to describe eating animals.

Naming Denial

In her recent book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy calls this attitude carnism. Carnism is the belief system that it is acceptable to eat some animals. Joy highlights the fact that there was no word for the belief system that eating animals is normal. Because vegetarianism and veganism had been named, while carnism had not, the former appeared to be discrete choices whereas eating animals appeared to just be eating.

Gender theorist Michael Kimmel states, “privilege is invisible,” meaning that the privileged social position is never named. Privilege is invisible, because you cannot identify a problem if it does not have a name and it is easy to deny something you cannot identify accurately with language. We see this in the case of meat eating, without a name it remains the norm and is not questioned as the dominant way of eating. Joy tries to rectify this problem by naming meat eating as an ideology and a choice, so that as a culture we can be begin to discuss it.

Currently, only those who already don’t eat animals are picking up on the term carnism, so for most people meat eating and the systems of belief that allow for the mass suffering of animals remain unnamed for now. This cultural shift is part of a marathon we are still striving to finish. In the short run, advocates must also work to change individuals on a personal level to lift the veil of denial that is normal for most people and that they have been learning to maintain since childhood. So how do we break through denial?

Normalizing Compassion

One possible way to overcome normalized denial is by normalizing compassion. It is easy to deny suffering because it is normal to deny suffering; advocates can potentially work within this rubric and make it easy to express compassion by making compassion normal. In Change of Heart, Nick Cooney highlights the possibilities of this tactic. Cooney examined studies of why people who smoke or are obese tend to be in social networks of others who smoke or are obese, or why it is that happy people have happy friends. This research finds it is not necessarily that people choose to be with others like themselves, nor is it that people in similar social networks are exposed to similar experiences that lead them to have these characteristics. Rather, people influence one another and “spread” these characteristics. Even when someone overeats and has seconds, it normalizes the act of overeating within her or his social circle.

Cooney suggests that animal advocates might therefore try to engage in communities of people and build friendships with people who are not animal advocates. In this way, people are exposed to the idea that not exploiting animals is not such a crazy idea and perhaps even normal.

Acknowledging Suffering

Though there might be inroads to normalizing compassion, animal suffering is rampant. The culture of denying animal suffering, or at least the culture of denying the importance and/or moral implications of animal suffering, may be so pervasive and entrenched that it is less useful to understand how denial works, and more important to understand those who are not in denial. After 248 pages of explaining the complex processes of denial, Cohen comes to the same conclusion:

“By taking denial as normal…it [is] easier to see “acknowledgement” as the active and infrequent opposite of denial. When do people pay attention? When do they recognize the significance of what they know?”

So what we should be asking is what makes people adopt instead of buy a new companion animal, become vegetarian, donate money to an animal organization, or start acknowledging animal suffering? In the next post I address this issue in terms of what is known about appeals that do and do not work. We will shift the question from “why is there denial?” to “when is there acknowledgement?”


In PART 2 in this series I discussed Stanley Cohen’s concept of the “atrocity triangle”—atrocities have victims, perpetrator(s), and bystanders who did not intervene or even went along with the atrocity. In the case of animal suffering, there are far more bystanders than perpetrators, but the perpetrators enable and enact the abuse and so they are of particular importance to understand. If no one worked in slaughterhouses or puppy mills or researched on animals, then much of the atrocities other animal species experience would cease to exist.

A popular adage in the animal protection movement most commonly attributed to Sir Paul McCartney is, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.” But if that is true, then how can those working inside slaughterhouses be willing to engage in such work? Cohen argues that both bystanders and perpetrators engage in denial. But how can it be that someone engaging in killing animals can deny what they are doing?

Cohen outlines a number of types of denial in which perpetrators may engage, and some help explain humans’ willingness to commit atrocities against animals. Occasionally, a basic denial of knowledge may be the case. Officials may be able to deny (be it a literal, interpretive, or implicitory denial) that failure to create more federally protected land is not hurting animals, or that killing homeless animals is the best way to deal with companion animal overpopulation. However, in most instances of normalized animal abuse this is clearly not the case, such as a person who kills an animal in a slaughterhouse, designs an animal experiment, or forcibly impregnates an animal, is physically engaging in something s/he cannot deny.

Two other types of denial appear to be at play—denial of responsibility and moral indifference. Cohen outlines a multitude of ways in which individuals deny responsibility. These denials occur in everyday practice and, in the case of animal atrocities, some of these ways that workers distance themselves from the abuse they enact are culturally accepted and normalized stories.

One way that seems of particular relevance is the idea of “necessity” or “self-defense.” Take the animal researcher, for example; s/he may feel s/he is doing the necessary “dirty work” to save human lives. Even though animal tests rarely produce useable results of relevance to ameliorating human maladies, and may even produce results that harm humans, the researcher may suffer a denial that what s/he does is crucial to helping people. This denial allows for the design and implementation of gruesome experiments and the fact that researchers are socially compensated with comfortable salaries reinforces the denial.

But what about the workers who don’t get a high salary—the lab technicians, or the people who kill animals on fur farms, or the slaughterhouse workers who are in immense physical danger at work and receive low pay? What makes them complicit in the system and how is it they engage in egregious violence against animals?

Here again the “necessity” argument emerges, particularly in the case of slaughterhouse workers. As Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation describes in detail, many slaughterhouse workers are extremely exploited and are put in a position where the choice not to work in the slaughterhouse may seem untenable. However, even in the most extreme circumstances, these workers must find justification to engage in their work.

Cohen highlights the work of Herbert C. Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton, in Crimes of Obedience. They find that subordinates have three ways they legitimize violence enacted out of obedience—they were given orders by someone in authority, they dehumanize the victims so they sit firmly outside of their moral universe, and/or through routinization, where each repetition of the action makes it easier to engage in the next time. All of these seem to be at play in the case of industries in which workers hurt or kill animals for a living.

All these factors come alive in the Gail Eisnitz’s book, Slaughterhouse. Eisnitz interviewed slaughterhouse workers. Through their stories, it is clear that at times slaughterhouse workers come to see the animals they kill as mere objects that must be conquered, rather than sentient beings. Under pressures by superiors to work faster in dangerous conditions, they will do things they might have thought unthinkable at other times in their lives. And as the job becomes daily practice it also becomes more normal.

Of course, not all people react this way. Walter Bond, currently in jail for an arson at a sheepskin factory, attributes watching the brutal killing of a pig by other workers in a slaughterhouse he worked at as the impetus for him to take illegal actions to economically cripple a business that engages in animal slaughter. Bond’s reaction was intense and it was a rejection of what he saw. However, most people in that position will learn to quietly acquiesce and eventually come to accept the torture around them and even become a willing part of it.

Dehumanization can be violent in slaughterhouses, as highlighted by a number of accounts in Eisnitz’s book. However, this dehumanization and cognitive distancing can manifest in less obvious ways, which is likely what is occurring in areas such as zoos or pet stores that sell dogs from puppy mills, where individuals working in the field might even claim to be “animal lovers.” Ellis Coulter and Leslie Irvine’s research with children in 4-H helps us understand how this happens. In 4-H children are expected to care for an animal and then, at the end of the year, sell that animal to be slaughtered. These children actively learned how to control their emotions and distance themselves from animals so that they could feel comfortable and even righteous in selling their animals to slaughter.

Over time, children in 4-H learn to control their emotions and attachment in a number of ways. In the early years, children describe being heartbroken when the animal goes to slaughter, but through experience they learn ways to mitigate this. They learn to distance from the animals emotionally, for example, by not naming them. They also don’t think of the animals as friends anymore, but as “market animals,” and justify this shift through a “redemption narrative.” This redemption narrative involves discussion of the money from the sale of the animal, highlighting that it will be used for their college fund.

This is similar to Cohen’s concept of violence for “necessity.” If there is a greater good that people can use to justify their actions then all guilt or responsibility is absolved. Unfortunately, in a society such as ours that places significantly more value on the comforts and preferences of humans over the lives of other animals, these justifications are easy to construct and maintain.

What is clear is that there are a multitude of factors at play that allow individuals perpetuating atrocities against animals to deny the true nature of what they are doing. The only reason they so easily get away with this is because, as a culture, a majority of people do not question atrocities against animals, and actively demand it by eating animal flesh, supporting animal experiments, taking their children to circuses and zoos, and wearing furs and skins such as leather, among many others. In the next post I will discuss the role that denial plays in how the majority of people become bystanders to this animal abuse.

PART 4 coming soon!